Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) was recognized Friday, Nov. 1, for his dedication to helping service members, who were subjected to toxic chemicals in the Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) secret chemical weapon tests, receive the medical care and disability compensation they need in conjunction with service-related health issues.
Former senior Navy officer and Cal Maritime graduate Jack Alderson, who initially brought the issues to Thompson’s attention, presented the Cal Maritime award. Thompson represents California’s Fifth Congressional District, serving all or part of Contra Costa, Lake, Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties.
“It is an honor to be recognized with this award,” Thompson said, adding, “but I didn’t do it (help the veterans) for an award, I did it because it was the right thing to do. These folks were abandoned after battle.”
In 1998, Alderson contacted Thompson, who he knew through his work in the Humboldt Harbor District, and told him about a top-secret DOD project he and numerous colleagues had been a part of in the 1960s. The project, under the umbrella of military work known as Project 112, was created under President John F. Kennedy during the Cold War to improve the military’s knowledge of and tactics using chemical weapons.
“These were the first air hot tests of chemical weapons,” Alderson said.
Alderson told Thompson how, at the age of 31 and in his ninth year in the Navy, he and hundreds of other colleagues who were also seasoned sailors, received orders to be part of this classified Project Shipboard Hazard and Defense (SHAD) on unincorporated Johnston Island, nearly 800 miles south of Hawaii. Alderson and his men received “extensive” training and spent three months testing chemical weapons in the environment and on monkeys in the Pacific. The weapons were sprayed aerially onto barges, which were observed and maintained by crews on nearby tugboats. Although the crews were never directly sprayed, they came into close contact with the monkeys and the sprayed areas in routine clean up and upkeep operations. The only protective gear they wore, Alderson recalls, was gas masks, rubber booties and gloves, and coveralls.
For 40 years, DOD denied Project SHAD even existed. In 2002, DOD admitted that between 1962 and 1974 it tested harmful chemical and biological weapons by spraying them on ships and sailors in Project 112, which included Project SHAD, and exposed at least 6,000 service members (without their knowledge) to things like Vx nerve gas, sarin nerve gas, E. coli, Francisella tularensis bacteria and Bacillus bacteria.
When Alderson first came to Thompson, he informed him that everybody under his command, including himself, had become sick, plagued with cancer and respiratory problems and could not receive help under their veterans benefits because the government would not acknowledge project SHAD happened, let alone that the testing had caused serious medical issues for those who worked in the testing area. Alderson says he has so many cancers that he “can’t remember their names or numbers,” including prostate cancer and malignant melanoma. His lungs are also riddled with asbestos.
When his office started investigating, according to Thompson, he found out that the Pentagon had been lying for 40 years, not only about the existence of the project, but what the soldiers were exposed to.